NCAA Hockey 101: The Hobey Baker case for Northeastern's Zach Aston-Reese

BOSTON, MA – FEBRUARY 6: Zach Aston-Reese #12 of the Northeastern Huskies skates against the Harvard Crimson during NCAA hockey in the semifinals of the annual Beanpot Hockey Tournament at TD Garden on February 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Crimson won 4-3. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

As the college hockey season winds down, the discussion logically shifts to who deserves the postseason awards.

The discussions for the Mike Richter and Spencer Penrose awards this year are, as far as I’m concerned, more or less academic. Canisius’s Charles Williams (.944) is the only goalie in the country for the Richter worth considering; the next-closest contender is Army’s Parker Gahagen (.936). It’s a huge gap. And for Jim Mongomery to guide Denver through that conference and fend off that Minnesota-Duluth team after all it lost in the summer, and only really suffering, what, one bad weekend all year? If he’s not the coach of the year, I really don’t know who is.

Meanwhile, the Hobey Baker is probably going to be more of a wide-open field. It shouldn’t be.

Zach Aston-Reese, a senior right wing at Northeastern, has been the best player I’ve seen live this year since the first day of the season, and leads the country in points with 62 in 36 games. He leads the nation in goals (30) and is tied for sixth in assists. He has more shots on goal than all but three players in the nation. He leads the nation in unassisted goals and shorthanded goals, and he’s tied for fifth in goals at 5-on-5. Only one of his 30 goals was scored into an empty net.

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That’s the headline stuff. That’s the stuff you don’t need to be told. When someone leads the country in scoring, their quality in the attacking zone tends to speak for itself.

What separates Aston-Reese from the other elite players I’ve seen a number of times this year (Clayton Keller at BU, Tyler Kelleher at UNH, Tyler Sheehy at Minnesota, etc.; I didn’t catch Union live so I can’t personally speak to the overall dominance of Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo) is actually two-fold.

First, it’s the fact that Aston-Reese was in a difficult situation for most of the season; his two linemates all year were supposed to be brothers John and Nolan Stevens, two very solid college players who can help push play in the right direction and contribute offensively. John, the team’s No. 1 center, missed 13 games out of Northeastern’s 36 due to various injuries. Nolan, the left wing, missed 21. For the third guy on their line to not only succeed without them, but to lead the country in scoring is no small feat in and of itself.

But even beyond that, the thing you have to keep in mind about Aston-Reese is that even beyond all the scoring — he had 10 games in which he scored at least three points and was only held off the scoresheet eight times — he’s also the most NHL-ready undrafted free agent in college hockey today. He’s going to sign with an NHL team the second Northeastern’s season is over and go play not because he negotiated to have a year burned off his ELC, but because his game is extremely close to complete.

“If you followed us this year or even the last four years, Zach Aston-Reese has probably been the best defensive player [in Hockey East],” coach Jim Madigan said after Aston-Reese went 1-1-2 in a win over UConn on Saturday. “He’s got tremendous work habits and his play away from the puck has been tremendous for all four years. It’s his offense that’s continued to come each and every year. He’s a 200-foot guy. He can impact your team’s success without scoring goals.”

More to the point, Northeastern has the benefit of having two high-end scoring lines. While Aston-Reese flew without his intended help for most of the year, the second line of Adam Gaudette (26-26-52), Dylan Sikura (20-36-56), and a rotating cast of characters added a next-level backup punch that you almost never see in college hockey. Two separate lines with guys who are miles above a point a game is difficult to counter.

But after that, Northeastern’s depth started to drop off pretty sharply, and the team suffered also from a lack of quality goaltending for most of the year. While Ryan Ruck is .921 in his last eight starts, he was also .889 in his first 27, so that goes a long way toward explaining why a team with this much firepower is still only 18-13-5.

To illustrate the kind of 200-foot difference Aston-Reese makes, here’s the 5-on-5 shot attempt data from all the games of his I tracked (11 so far). The impact he has on his team’s performance when he’s on the ice almost can’t be overstated.

Yahoo

That data is admittedly limited because it’s fewer than a third of Northeastern’s games and it’s just one man’s observation, but I’ve seen them a few times beyond that without tracking Aston-Reese and those numbers make sense based on The Eye Test.

Plus-8 percent attempt differential, plus-5 unblocked attempts, plus-9 on-goal, and plus-11 from higher-danger areas. How about plus-38 in goals? And how about doing it while you’re effectively used as a shutdown forward, getting just 26 percent of your zone starts in the offensive end? Come on.

Moreover, while some have criticized his high shooting percentage this year (at 19.7 percent in all situations, it’s one of the highest in the country) the scoring chance generation numbers help to indicate why. If there were any way to track this kind of thing in terms of “expected shooting percentage” it’s tough to imagine he’s outperforming what he “should do” too dramatically.

At the other end of the ice, no player I tracked this year allowed fewer high-danger chances per 60 minutes than Aston-Reese, which is tough to square with that zone-start data other than to say he’s a phenomenal talent who dominated the game like no one else.

I’m sure cases will be made for other candidates in the next few weeks, perhaps even including the goaltender Charles Williams, but all of them should be dismissed. Vecchione scored seven of his points into empty nets (the highest number in the nation). Kelleher is one of those guys who’s going to get dinged for not really playing defense (because he doesn’t).

Aston-Reese might end up missing out because he might be splitting votes with not one but two high-scoring teammates, and his team is only alright rather than very good, as Vecchione’s is. I would actually call that a credit to Aston-Reese’s candidacy, of course, because if he has a save percentage impact of plus-53 points maybe, just maybe, the goaltending is the issue.

Oh, and the point total. He’ll probably hit 65 this weekend. That’s a pretty good number. It’s probably gonna be the biggest one in the country this year. Adding in the fact that almost no one can score against him, and the choice for Hobey is clear.

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But you never know with these things. People will make up a lot of excuses not to give this to the best player in the country.

Y’know, maybe Vecchione’s underlying numbers would be this good, too, if I’d tracked him all year. But I really doubt it. Not only are these the best numbers I’ve seen this year, but they’re the best of anyone not named Jack Eichel that I’ve seen in the past three years.

Which is pretty good.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Denver (swept at Omaha)
2. UMass Lowell (idle)
3. Harvard (idle)
4. Minnesota-Duluth (split at Western Michigan)
5. BU (idle)
6. Western Michigan (split with Minnesota-Duluth)
7. Providence (swept UMass)
8. Union (idle)
9. Notre Dame (idle)
10. Minnesota (split at Michigan)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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